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Thread: Memories. Are They Really True?

  1. #1
    Registered User DRayVan's Avatar
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    Memories. Are They Really True?

    Recently, I watched a “based-on-fact” movie spanning the childhood and career of the main character. The early-childhood scenes, in particular, amazed me, especially the details and dialogue. Questions ran through my mind: Did the youngster actually do and say what the film portrayed? Where did the writer get this detailed information? This started me wondering about my earliest memories: Did I do all that I remember doing? This raised a larger question: Are my memories genuine, true memories?

    Since my early childhood occurred long ago, my recollection of events have faded and most of the finer details have eroded. Fading and eroding memories are to be expected, but my earliest memories have been subjected to the greater threats of exaggeration and distortion. Each time I heard my family’s stories about me and the things I did, my memories ceased to be solely mine. And Lord knows, I provided ample fodder for some unique stories worth telling and retelling. Now what remains is an amalgamation of my memories and their versions of events retold many times over.

    For example: One of my earliest memories was my third Christmas – I was 26 months old. I distinctly remember riding my new tricycle straight into our Christmas tree. After all these years, my memories of colliding with the tree, the tree crashing on me, and the ornaments shattering on the floor still seem so real. But did this event happen as I remember it; I mean, exactly that way. I’m not so sure any more. Oh, I have no doubt that I rode my tricycle into the Christmas tree – I was prone to domestic mayhem. But are my recollections of the tree toppling on me and the aftermath, accurate? Or has my imagination “filled in the blanks” between what I truly remember and what I heard when my parents told and retold the story.

    Here’s another example: As the story goes, I inserted one of Mom’s bobby pins into an electrical socket and blew the “whole building’s circuit.” At the time, we lived in a row of two-story apartments, maybe eight or ten apartments to a row. Blowing such a large circuit sounds plausible, but I don’t believe all my memories of this story any more. I doubt that all apartments were wired off a single circuit, but it was World War II, cheap housing, so anything was possible.

    But I am sure that I did put a bobby pin in a wall plug, receive a nasty shock, and likely blew that particular circuit but the “whole building?” I can’t buy that exaggeration anymore. What I recall of the incident is sketchy at best – a few sparks, a jolt of electricity, and pain. Memories of the tumult and commotion that followed are not mine alone but those of the storytellers, Mom and Dad, imprinted on me, thus creating a coherent memory-story of my first encounter with electricity. I was about 30 months old at the time.

    Into my teens, I remember periodically being subjected to a retelling of these and other stories with embellishments for maximum laughter-effect, the truth be damned. My memories of those events are now so distorted that I can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad are gone, and neither journaled any of the events.

    Here’s an early event that I always swore was a true memory, but as I think about it now, I’m uncertain how much is strictly my memory and how much I’ve been influenced by Dad’s great yarn-spinning skills when he told and retold this story. I was about 33 months old when it happened.

    Uncle came for a visit, and Dad took us fishing. While I played, Dad and Uncle cast their baited hooks, reeled them back, and cast them, again and again. They kept this up for quite some time without a bite and were about to give up when a large fish jumped out of the water on the far side of the pond.

    “I’ll get em,” said Uncle (I doubt he actually said this), and he cast a baited hook as far as he could, but it fell short. Undeterred, Uncle added several weights to his hook, baited it, and cast, again. I remember hearing the line sing as it flew through the air and the reel scream as the line wound off its barrel. When the last of the line peeled off, it kept going out of sight: Uncle had forgotten to tie the end of the line to the reel.

    I remember seeing the weights, hook, and bait land where the big fish had jumped out of the water and the line flop on the surface right behind. Dad was laughing uncontrollably, and Uncle was cursing.

    The problem is, Dad laughed and Uncle cursed whenever the story was retold, and Dad often added sound effects – the singing line and the screaming reel – and mimicked the line flopping on the pond. Have my memories been so hopelessly distorted by the story’s retelling? Do I have any true memories of the fishing trip? Both Dad and Uncle are gone, and I’ll never know for sure.

    Here’s a story my two younger sisters have retold many times and have gotten the details all wrong. I was tasked with “watching” them while Mom and Dad went to town, shopping. For some excitement, I thought it would be great fun lighting-off some firecrackers. Not satisfied with a simple bang, I reasoned a small cannon would be more fun. So I took one of Mom’s spools of thread, inserted a firecracker in its barrel, dug a small hole, and buried it level with the ground. I put a pebble over the opening and lit the fuse. From a safe distance, my sisters and I watched the pebble launch out of sight with a bang. When the firecracker exploded, the thread kept the barrel intact, barely disturbing the ground. Three holes and six launches later, I was out of firecrackers.

    My sisters’ version of the story, however, included massive explosions, a moon-cratered driveway, and boulders raining down on us. Over the years, I refused to be influenced by their retelling of the event and corrected them with the facts, but they have steadfastly stuck to their version of the story. We were thirteen, nine, and six years old at the time.

    Other memories from my youth and young adulthood have been tainted by conflicting versions, but some have not been muddled by others retelling the same story and have remained pure. Unfortunately, all my memories have suffered the consequences of time, and when I think of an event that should be pristine, sometimes different versions emerge. Subtle but important changes come to mind regarding people, places, and things – and, of course, the dialogue (most of which I can’t remember, anyway) is different each time I think about it, especially while I’m editing what I’ve written.

    I prefer writing complete stories from beginning to end that are entertaining to read, but when I try to write a story based on my past, I encounter plot holes, inconsistencies, and overlapping memories from multiple events. I tackle these issues by using a central character – sometimes me – to weave the fabric of a story, darn the plot holes, patch the inconsistencies, and stitch together multiple events. Hopefully when I’m done, an engaging story will materialize. Sometimes a memory will spark an idea, and I’ll create a fictional account of an event – a very loosely-based-on-fact story – complete with people, places, and things. Then I turn my imagination loose and follow where it takes me.

    Most of my life has been quite boring, and I’ve forgotten many of the finer details, anyway. So I’ve abandoned the hopeless ideal of writing truly autobiographical stories in favor of spinning a good yarn or two like my Dad and crafting a fun read if I can. This new voice permits me to communicate in ways that my failing, old voice could not. And for that, I should always be thankful, and on most days, I am.

  2. #2
    Phil Captain Pike's Avatar
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    Consider this. The light that bounced off the pond, your uncle, the fish jumping, all of that – the light that bounced off it, all those years ago is still hurtling through the universe somewhere. Maybe it even curves around a supermassive black hole and comes back towards us. Someday, they'll be able to get in front of that light, and see all those images, again! It may be a while, though.

    Ничего нет лучше для исправления, как прежнее с раскаянием вспомнить.

  3. #3
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    We remember our dreams when we write them down or tell someone about them. We humans are literary creatures. Our thoughts and our memories are shaped by and enhanced by language. In fact. our relatives the apes are as mentally acute as humans until our children learn to use language, at which point everything changes.

    If (per Sapir/Whorf) language has a tyranny on thought, this need not be seen as a bad thing. Without reshaping our memories by putting them in words, the memories would disappear altogether, like untold dreams.

  4. #4
    TheFairyDogMother kiz_paws's Avatar
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    Interesting thoughts.... I, too, have a family that enjoys telling 'dillies' from my youth, and over the years the real truth has been expanded such that I often thought, 'did it happen like that?'...

    Anyhow, have enjoyed immensely your contributions to LitNet in stories. And I say, keep 'em coming!
    Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty
    ~Albert Einstein

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